Cast your mind back to the summer, did anybody expect Alex Ovechkin to be in the MVP race a quarter of the way into 2021-22? I certainly didn’t – and have no shame in admitting so.
Ovechkin is 36. He’s chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record and is on an aging team. Before the season kicked off, it seemed plausible that the Russian would be in the chase for the Richard Trophy – but it wasn’t realistic to expect him to carry an injury-battered roster to the top of the NHL while getting off to the hottest start of his career.
After 22 games, Ovechkin has 19 goals and 18 assists. He ranks second in the NHL for points and goals, while only five players have out-assisted him so far this term. He has been unbelievable for the Washington Capitals – and it shows in the record books.
Ovechkin was named the NHL’s first star of the month for October and has been crowned player of the week twice in November. It’s all a bit ridiculous – but it’s the kind of ridiculousness that warrants serious contemplation.
Is Ovechkin a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate? Will the Russian be able to stay this hot all season? What impact will the resolution of the Capital’s injury crisis have on the 36-year-old?
Let’s consider each talking point in reverse order.
The Capitals Versus Injuries
There’s a reason why Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette has handed out so many debuts this season – and it’s not because he thinks the Capitals have a golden generation on their hands. Yes, Washington’s youngsters have performed tremendously when called upon – but their promotion to the line-up was never part of the plan.
Ovechkin isn’t meant to be playing alongside Aliaksei Protas, nor did his head coach expect to be drawing up Nicklas Backstrom-less power-play units.
Here’s the bottom line: Ovechkin has been producing offense at an elite rate despite being fielded on a depleted roster. Once Washington’s injury troubles ease, it’ll be harder for their opponents to focus so much of their energy on stopping one player.
If the Capitals can get healthy, it’s possible that Ovechkin’s form will improve further.
Is Ovechkin Due for a Scoring Slump?
I should probably caveat the above. Although Ovechkin might benefit from Washington’s injury crisis coming to an end, it’s also true that the Caps’ returnees could take points away from the Russian. So, with that in mind, what do the analytics say about Ovechkin’s output this season?
As shown below, Ovechkin’s lines haven’t been dominant in terms of expected goals (xG).
The Russian has spent most of the season alongside Tom Wilson and compatriot Evgeny Kuznetsov, a line that has created and conceded 8 xG. In other words, the Capitals’ top unit isn’t generating more high-quality looks than their opponents. However, they are scoring at a much higher rate.
With Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Wilson on the ice, Washington has scored 17 goals and allowed eight – the equivalent of netting 4.72 goals per 60 while conceding just 2.22.
However, xG is usually thought of as being a rough indicator of luck. If a player is out-shooting their xG, they will soon regress to the mean – so the theory goes. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Ovechkin has routinely outshot his xG clip. This year, he has 19 goals from an xG of 9.6. Last season, he scored 6.2 goals above his expected rate. In 2019-20, his goal-scoring acumen saw him find the net 14 times more than he should have. He’ll probably bamboozle the xG gods again.
But if we shouldn’t be concerned about Ovechkin’s ability to outperform his xG, what about his shooting percentage? The Russian is shooting at 20% through 20 games, eight points above his career average and five points above his career-best.
To be blunt, it’s unlikely that Ovechkin will be able to sustain his shooting numbers. But that doesn’t mean he won’t have a career year anyway.
Ovechkin versus McDavid and Draisaitl
When discussing Ovechkin’s point-scoring pace, it’s worth remembering that most 36-year-olds miss the occasional game. Injuries (and All-Star Weekend suspensions) happen, it’s a fact of life. As a result, it’s probably wise to discount the possibility that Ovechkin will make 82 regular-season appearances this year. It’ll be a bonus for the Capitals if he does, but it shouldn’t be the expectation.
On average, though, Ovechkin has suited up for roughly 97% of games in any season. If he does so again this year (and continues to score at his current rate), he’ll register 68 goals and 64 assists in 79 appearances. In other words, he’s on for the best year of his career.
Although it remains to be seen whether Ovechkin will beat Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to the Hart Trophy, it’s abundantly clear that he is in the race.
But how does the Russian stack up against his rivals from the Edmonton Oilers?
At the time of writing, Ovechkin is on course to be out-scored by both Oilers – a fact that hurts his MVP candidacy. Washington’s captain also cannot compete with McDavid in terms of aesthetics, he isn’t going to score a goal as beautiful as McDavid’s solo effort versus the New York Rangers.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t or can’t win the Hart. If the Capitals finish the regular season with one of the best records in the NHL and Ovechkin continues to play a virtuoso role, he should win his fourth Hart Trophy.
Wouldn’t that be something?